Tragedies have plagued the Hemingway family history with depressing frequency. Ernest Hemingway, who won Pulitzer and Nobel prizes for his fiction, shot himself with a double-barreled shotgun in 1961, at the age of 61. His brother, sister and father also committed suicide. Ernest’s granddaughter, Margaux, a popular model from the 1970s, killed herself when she was 42. Her sister, Muffet, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
The Hemingway DNA looms large in Running From Crazy, a documentary premiering on OWN Sunday evening. (Newsweek reviewed the movie in the fall.) Directed by two-time Academy-Award-winner Barbara Kopple, who brings a very personal connection to the story, the film explores the family’s harrowing past and Mariel Hemingway’s relentless fight to overcome it. Actress, writer and younger sister to Muffet and Margaux, Mariel, 52, transcended these tragedies by turning to yoga, meditation, a holistic lifestyle and deep introspection.
Newsweek spoke with Mariel about what it was like watching her family story unfold on-screen, how she survived this dark, painful past, and the new legacy she’s forging for the Hemingway name.
Were you tentative about having a film made about your family?
I was, but after having breakfast with [Barbara Kopple] and discussing life in general, I knew she had the kind of open heart and the right perspective to see this story [is] about more than my journey, or even my sisters’ journey, or my grandfather’s. It’s really about why different people make different choices based on what they’re given in life.
Take me to that moment when you first saw the film. What was it like?
I felt overwhelmed, a little bit scared, and then, by the end of it, I felt so much gratitude and had so much compassion for the journey of my family.... Like I said in the documentary, I don’t think this is a family of dark depression, a curse, whatever. Everybody has some version. They’ve got stuff. Tragedies happen. But it’s what you do with it. It’s your response to it. My life is so full of joy and light.
Your grandfather was a legendary writer, and Margaux was one of the highest-paid models of the 1970s. Yet people still relate to your story.
The reason why I did this film is … not about how extraordinary my own story is. It’s about how we all share such a similar journey. People come up [to me] and go, ‘We have the same story.’ And they’ll tell me their story, and it’s nothing like mine…. The facts don’t have to be the same, but the feelings are.
Seven of your relatives committed suicide. What’s it like carrying around this heritage of mental illness?
Here’s the thing. I was never Mariel Smith, and I never had a family that was like the Waltons, although I was obsessed with them as a child. So to me, that was normal. Margaux committing suicide and Muffet being schizophrenic didn’t mean anything to me as long as I knew how to live my life to help balance my life. We’re all trying to get through our lives the best that we can with the history that we have. Why do I make the choices that I make? I did a lot of soul-searching.
What do you think Margaux would say about Running From Crazy?
She felt there was this deep void inside her that she couldn’t fill. She was bulimic. She didn’t feel loved. She didn’t feel seen. [With this film,] I think she would be loved and appreciated. If there is some sort of spiritual world or realm, I think there is a smiling person who knows that the journey was worth the struggle.
In the film, we learn that you kept certain things about Ernest and Margaux from your daughters.
There’s a misperception that I never told my kids anything about the mental illness. It was quite the contrary. I told them everything about addiction and how our family really suffered and that they had to be very careful in how they lived their lives. I was very clear on that.
What I didn’t tell them was how scared I was that I might not be able to … give them enough information, tools, ammunition so to speak, to be able to journey through their lives healthily and know that they’re not dragging along the suitcases of a genetic heritage they should be scared of.
If you step back for a moment and think about this remarkable family you come from, and the things you’ve done to contribute to that legacy and all you’ve overcome, how do you feel?
First of all, that was a really nice thing to say. I don’t think anyone’s ever said that. I never thought about that. I was like, ‘Oh, wow, I didn’t know I was part of what makes it remarkable.’ So thank you. Seriously, that hit me. So ask the question again because I went completely stupid.
If you step back for a moment and …
I’m grateful to be in this family, because it is amazing. And I think we all have hardships and difficulties—all of us. But we can be extraordinary with whatever history we come from. It makes me feel very humbled and very honored that I get to be a part of this journey and legacy.
(This interview has been edited for length.)